Sitting on the sofa recently,scanning through the multitude of movies suddenly available courtesy of my new HBO subscription, I stumbled across Taking Woodstock, a 2009 Ang Lee-directed dramedy starring Demetri Martin as a gay Jewish innkeeper instrumental in organizing the legendary music festival. Watching it, I wondered how many of today’s youth could identify with the historical moment that the film purported to re-create. (Judging by its box-office take, I’m betting not many.) I’m not just talking about the now-absurd outfits or the once-ubiquitous songs that have been slowly shuffled off the radio airwaves. It’s the optimistic attitude that communal artistic events could change the world for the better – without even charging admission – that seems anachronistic in today’s ultra-merchandised age.
So it seemed ironic when, only hours later, I stumbled into an event that traced its essence back to the spirit of ’69, even if the trappings were totally different. If you want to move minds through art in the modern era, you no longer need to douse a half-million hippies in mud, nor shut down the New York State Thruway with a throng of VW Microbuses. Today, Max Yasgur’s farm has moved to cyberspace and Orlando photographer Barry Kirsch has just pitched his tent on the lawn, flying a flag proclaiming “Picture Peace.”
A pro-peace cyber-crusade may sound like a strange project for someone best known as the man behind Murder City , the striking series of homicidal snapshots that were the hit of this year’s Snap Orlando photography festival. But as I found in just a few minutes of conversation, Kirsch isn’t the sort of artist who recycles violent imagery without understanding its impact. In his four decades as a photojournalist (he started at the Sentinel in 1974), Kirsch has seen and shot more than his share of death and disaster. “As a photojournalist, it’s easy to get cynical,” he says, “but this has restored a lot of my faith in humanity.”
What Kirsch is so inspired by is picture-peace.org, his newly launched photography-focused social media website. Load it up and you’ll be struck by a superficial resemblance to Facebook, but Kirsch points out several key differences. For starters, Picture Peace strongly supports the copyrights of its contributors – unlike Facebook, which has a license to use any photos you upload. Picture Peace also respects photographers by supporting higher resolutions for better picture quality. And since the site is filing for 501(c)3 status, it will always be free to use, and your personal data won’t be mined for commercial advertising.
The idea behind this venture emerged from an observation Kirsch made in the field: “All photographers are friends. They bond immediately, I’ve seen it again and again.” Inspired by the recent Arab Spring revolution and the dedication of the volunteers who assisted with his Murder City project, Kirsch wanted “to do something that means something” and promote world peace, but “the only thing I know how to do is take pictures.”
That instinct soon led to the creation of picture-peace.org, which attracted more than 100 members in its first month. On the evening in question, Kirsch had brought his website into the real world at Urban ReThink, where more than 100 people signed up for the service and had avatar portraits taken of themselves holding a “Picture Peace” sign. The avatars will be displayed on the site in black and white until world peace is achieved, at which point they’ll convert to color. (Details are fuzzy on exactly how that milestone will be determined, but I have a feeling they’ve got plenty of time to work that out.)
As Kirsch shared the evening’s successful statistics with me, he emphasized that this project isn’t just about professional photographers. They’re hoping to teach novices to use simple point-and-shoot cameras and “just shoot where you live,” sharing images of their neighborhoods with the world. Kirsch feels that “people want to participate in a global environment,” and says that communication is already “flying back and forth” between members from as far away as Albania and the Middle East.
In our short-attention-span age, people are making time to take and share more photographs than ever before, making it an ideal medium for cross-cultural communication. “Just because people don’t fight doesn’t mean you have peace,” Kirsch says. “Peace needs dialogue and understanding. Photography is just a facilitator. [People] might not understand each other’s language, but they can understand an image.”
“People aren’t asking for the world, they’re just asking for their part in the world,” Kirsch added just before I left. “Who knows where this will go? At least I’m making an effort,” he says, gesturing to the roomful of volunteers and newly registered members. “And so are all these people.”